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West Virginia’s potent passing attack, speedy defense could pose problems for Texas

Not only does Texas have to keep pace with a potent offense, but West Virginia boasts arguably the best defense in the Big 12, so it’s safe to say Saturday’s test will be a tall one.

NCAA Football: Texas at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t long ago that the Texas Longhorns and West Virginia Mountaineers each owned perfect efforts in the Big 12, boasting top 10 records and a shared spot atop the conference standings. Then No. 6 West Virginia fell on the road against Iowa State, 30-14, and not to be outdone, No. 6 Texas left Stillwater with a 38-35 loss the following weekend.

Suddenly, Saturday’s showdown between the two ranked foes holds much more weight within the Big 12 landscape than it may have had West Virginia and Texas not tripped up along the way. However, because of recent blemishes on the schedule, whichever team falls short on Saturday will fall from its current three-way tie atop the Big 12 to third place with just three weeks remaining.

To that end, there’s bad news for both sides.

West Virginia will enter a sold-out Darrell K Royal—Texas Memorial Stadium, where Texas is a perfect 4-0 this season. On the other hand, when the Mountaineers step foot inside DKR, they’ll do so with an elite offense led by a Heisman candidate gunslinger in Will Grier and arguably the Big 12’s best defense, which poses the question, can Texas do enough on both sides of the ball to keep pace?

Despite the daunting defense, it’s West Virginia’s offense that often steals the show, and understandably so. Generating nearly 40 points per game and fresh off of a season-high 58-point showing in a blowout win over Baylor, West Virginia’s offense is a top 15 unit nationally with an average of 479.1 yards per game, and the bulk of that productivity comes from the aforementioned Grier’s passing prowess.

After bypassing an opportunity to play for a paycheck, Grier returned for his senior season only to emerge as one of the elite passers in college football.

Commanding a top 10 passing attack (331.3 YPG), which will be the best Texas has seen to date, Grier’s name can be found near the top of numerous statistical categories. His 25 passing touchdowns ranks 6th nationally, while his 70.3 percent completion rate is a top 10 effort as well. More notably than any number may be Grier’s 188.7 passer efficiency rating, which trails only Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray and Alabama’s likely soon-to-be Heisman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

Though he does set up shop behind a shaky offensive line, which ranks outside of the top 100 in sacks allowed (2.71) and was eaten alive in Ames to the tune of seven sacks allowed, Grier has a bevy of reliable, NFL-caliber receivers to sling the ball around to when provided the time to do so, as recently detailed here at Burnt Orange Nation.

Unsurprisingly, senior David Sills V leads the way with 37 receptions for 529 yards and nine touchdowns; each of which is a team-best effort. Senior Gary Jennings Jr. and junior Marcus Simms join Sills in the 500-yard club, as Jennings has amassed 502 yards and eight touchdowns on 33 receptions, while Simms’ 29 receptions have netted 511 yards and two scores. Also emerging as an option is sophomore T.J. Simmons, an Alabama transfer who has tallied 17 receptions for 256 yards and one score; an effort bolstered by three games with at least 50 yards, despite being the fourth option.

Also detailed in that piece, though, is that despite the lack of a pure, elite option this season — statistically speaking — such as Marques Brown or Tylan Wallace, the nation’s fifth-leading receiver, Grier is spreading the ball around at a tremendously balanced rate.

As a result, it’s a pick your poison as to which wide receiver or two will break out throughout any given game.

Sills boasts a pair of 100-yard efforts against Tennessee (140) and Baylor (139), but otherwise, he’s been limited to no more than 74 yards in each of his other five appearances. Jennings also reached the 100-yard mark against Baylor, but he’s had no more than 70 yards in any other Big 12 appearance. Similarly, Simms enjoyed three-consecutive games with at least 119 yards against Youngstown State, Kansas State, and Texas Tech, but beyond that, his best showing is 57 yards against Kansas, and his two more recent outings against Iowa State and Baylor have netted a mere three receptions for 21 yards.

That said, the individual inconsistencies in the stat sheet are more closely credited to the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

For example, despite the general lack of individual game-by-game success, Sills, Jennings, Simms, and Simmons have combined for at least 237 yards each time out, with the exception of the Iowa State game, which we’ll come back to momentarily. This presents Texas with the unique and challenging chore of not only attempting to prevent Sills, Jennings, and Simms, which combined for upwards of 2,700 yards in 2017, from each having a personal field day, but prevent the entire core — Simmons included — from slowly chipping away and compiling a 250-yard showing behind a collection of 50, 60, and 70-yard efforts.

Simply put, don’t allow the raw numbers, such as Stills’ team-high 527 yards ranking 80th nationally, fool you — he hauled in 18 touchdowns in 2017, and he’s halfway to that point this season with a top 10 ranking with nine scores. Jennings is another example of statistical regression, but he’s NFL-bound as well and is working towards a second 1,000-yard season in as many tries.

Unsurprisingly, for a Texas defense that ranks 90th nationally, Saturday could prove to be a long day if the Longhorns aren’t able to keep Grier and his quartet of pass-catchers contained, though the plan in place is to replicate Iowa State’s success, which limited Grier to 100 yards through the air by often leaving eight bodies in coverage.

As expected with such a pass-heavy offensive attack, West Virginia’s ground game doesn’t garner as much attention, but it has caught the attention of Texas head coach Tom Herman.

“The one thing that they are doing better this year in my opinion than they did last year, they are running the ball really well, too,” Herman said during his Monday afternoon media availability.

“So that creates quite the conundrum on defense, where I think last year, if you sat back and defended the pass, I think you could maybe hold up against the run with as we call, zero count football, meaning you don’t have an extra hat on defense, but we’re going to have to get plus one to the running game, and so we’re going to have to mix-and-match how we do that because they are running the ball really well.”

Statistically speaking, West Virginia’s individual rushing efforts are especially similar to its wide receiver corps.

Junior Kennedy McKoy leads the way with 64 attempts for 366 yards and two touchdowns, but he hasn’t rushed for more than 77 yards in any outing this season. Freshman Leddie Brown does have a pair of 100-yard showings to his name in wins over Youngstown State and Kansas, but his season total sits at 312 yards after amassing no more than 33 yards in any other game. Junior Martell Pettaway, the third piece of West Virginia’s three-headed rushing attack, totaled 56 and 77 yards throughout the first two games, respectively, but his best showing since then is just 35 yards.

All totaled, West Virginia ranked 89th nationally with 147.9 rushing yards per game; good for eighth in the Big 12.

While of paper, that matchup would seemingly favor a 36th-ranked Texas rush defense, the Longhorns need for additional bodies in the secondary could prove problematic if Texas’ front four or five can’t control the line of scrimmage — a chore now more challenging without starting nose tackle Chris Nelson, who is out with a sprained ankle.

As noted, West Virginia’s defense largely won’t steal the headlines, but it is daunting, nevertheless.

With just four games to go, West Virginia’s defense leads the Big 12 after allowing only 19.6 points per game, and the rush defense (132.9) and pass defense (216.6) each rank second in the Big 12. An influx of transfer talent has largely allowed the Mountaineers to take such a significant step forward from 2017, as West Virginia added talents such as defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow (USC), defensive tackle Jabril Robinson (Clemson), cornerback Joshua Norwood (Ohio State), and cornerback Keith Washington (JUCO) to the starting lineup.

On top of the talent, though, West Virginia’s unique 3-3-5 defense presents its own set of problems as it provides the Mountaineers with an impressive amount of speed defensively; it’s certainly impressed Longhorns offensive coordinator Tim Beck.

“Fast. Those guys are fast,” Tim Beck said of what stands out about WVU’s defense. “They’re not real big but they’re fast.”

To that end, Beck added that the Longhorns game plan would ideally be to utilize their size and strength on a defense in which eight of the top nine tackles are defensive backs in hopes of wearing West Virginia down over the course of the game.

Linebacker David Long Jr. leads the way with 68 tackles and his 12.5 tackles for loss is the sixth-best effort in college football, but beyond him, it’s largely defensive backs making plays. Again, eight of the team’s nine leading tacklers are defensive backs, with the most notable names being safety Kenny Robinson (45 tackles 2 INTs, 2 PD), Norwood (31 tackles, team-high 6 PD), safety Dravon Henry (30 tackles, 2 INT), and cornerbacks Hakeem Bailey (28 tackles) and Washington (18 tackles, 2 INT).

As evident by the tackle totals, West Virginia’s defensive back-heavy defensive scheme affords the Mountaineers as much coverage support as necessary while the secondary’s willingness and ability to swarm the line of scrimmage has allowed West Virginia to remain formidable in run support, despite few big bodies.

“It’s just unique to them,” Beck said of West Virginia’s 3-3-5 scheme. “We’ve put together a good plan as an offensive staff to attack them in the run game and the pass game.”

Texas is set to enter Saturday’s ranked showdown as a 2.0-point favorite, which isn’t at all surprising considering the Longhorns are perfect at home and were eyeing the College Football Playoff just days ago. Though still working through inconsistencies and self-inflicted wounds on both sides of the ball, Texas has as much talent as any team in the Big 12 and as evident with a Red River Showdown over Oklahoma, the Longhorns can outlast any team in the country; even one with an elite offense led by an elite gunslinger.

But the difference between the Sooners and Mountaineers is defense, and though Texas’ defense will likely hold West Virginia below its season scoring average at home and find ways to produce some points, it seems much less likely that the Longhorns will be able to produce enough points against a stout defense to keep pace with a potent offense.

Prediction: Texas 27, West Virginia 34

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